Spaceflight Insider

Area 51? Forget it! In terms of SpaceX Crew Dragon – it’s all Area 59

Crew Dragon at ISS

An artists rendering of a Crew Dragon on final approach to the International Space Station. Image Credit: SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With 2018 just taking its initial steps SpaceX is already moving forward with plans for the new year. The company’s COO, Gwynne Shotwell, noted during a 2016 press conference, the “hell” they won’t fly crew before 2019. That year has come and, according to Florida Today’s James Dean, Crew Dragon is being readied for this mission via a recent agreement signed between SpaceX and the U.S. Air Force.

Area 59, a site previously used for the processing of satellites, will now be used to get the Crew Dragon spacecraft ready to send astronauts to the International Space Station under the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

This is just the latest location along Florida’s Space Coast to fall under SpaceX’s influence. Kicking off with Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40, the NewSpace company has also gained the use of Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A and Space Launch Complex 13 (since renamed Landing Zone 1).

When coupled with Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 4E (East) in California and its facilities at Boca Chica, Texas – SpaceX has expanded its launch and processing operations across the United States.

Like a number of facilities at CCAFS and KSC, Area 59 was tapped by the U.S. Air Force to be closed down and offered up to commercial entities like SpaceX in 2014. According to Florida Today’s report, the commander of the 45th Space Wing, Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, said that an estimated one million square feet had either been leased or licensed to the private sector as part of the Commercial Space Launch Act.

Also according to the report posted on Florida Today, SpaceX hopes to conduct its first (unmanned) Crew Dragon test flight in April with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner currently eyeing an August uncrewed launch date. Should everything with these flights go off without a hitch, crewed flights could take place as early as August and November (respectively).

The United States has lacked the ability to launch astronauts on its own since 2011 when the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, came to an end with Shuttle Atlantis touching down at the Shuttle Landing Facility’s runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Since that time, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz flights to get to and from the orbiting laboratory (each seat has been estimated at costing NASA $70 million).

Meanwhile, Florida’s finicky weather appears to be cooperating for this week’s planned launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 with the secret “Zuma” payload currently slated to take to the skies Thursday, Jan. 4. The launch window is scheduled to open at 8 p.m. EST and extends two hours. 




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Has Zuma slipped to Friday?

Jan. 2, 2017

Hi Daniel,
Yes it has.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

NET Sunday now. Some anomalies showed up in the Wednesday WDR run.

We know, but thanks Dewey!

The abort system on crew dragon is not a good design. Loading up the capsule with that much hypergolic propellant is…unacceptable. I doubt anybody in NASA is going to sign off on that deathtrap. So I would say the HELL they will.

Probably no more hazardous than sitting atop many tonnes of LOX and RP-1. It requires no igniter on a solid rocket with a built-in time delay as in all the other U.S. “capsule” designs going back to Mercury.

You might want to study up on the properties of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine.

Rodger Raubach

Not necessary, since I’m a Ph.D. Physical Chemist. Completely aware of the hazards implied. There’s a lot to be said in favor of substances which may be hypergolic as a replacement of igniter systems.

Those propellants are so completely noxious and hazardous there is that to say about them….and an ignitor? Good luck with that Doc.

I totally understand your concerns of hypergolic fuels in close proximity to the crew, however, if NASA wasn’t going to sign off on this design, wouldn’t SpaceX have changed the design by now? It’s my understanding that NASA will the primary user of Crew Dragon. At least initially.

I do not have an answer to your question Bruce. Sorry.

Hyperbolic combos are on most manned spacecraft even down to the space shuttle and orion for good reasons. Almost all RCS’s are hyperbolic Spacecraft main engine are too aka The Lunar module descent & ascent engines and the new Orion service module engine. HG strengths are their reliable starts, not horrible isp, and they can be shout off & and throttled (unlike solids).
There’s a lot of hyperbolic combos out there. The red fuming nitric acid and other baddies are a thing of the past.

3000 pounds of dinitrogen tetroxide and monomethylhydrazine packed into that capsule. You can fill up the page with distractions but you cannot deny a ton and a half of that stuff next to the crew.

The Apollo capsule had 270 pounds of hypergolics for control during reentry. The escape tower is a near perfect design in terms of getting a capsule clear of the vehicle during a launch anomaly. The Dragon is a bomb.

NASA signed off on the Crew Dragon Launch Escape System during a Launch Abord System Preliminary Design Review in October 2011.

They would not sign off on propulsive landing and I expect they will reconsider this system.

See if you can finf out how much the Service module had. The Apollo SM had enough to push the Apollo command a service modules out of lunar orbit and back to earth with a lot to spare. That takes a heck of a lot more energy than what an escape system needs. Havn’t done orbital mechanics since my 1st semester back in the 1980’s, but just searching the web for SM propellant load should show you.

You go ahead and find out and you might notice the service module was not the Launch Escape System. The Apollo escape tower actually carried the capsule away from the stack- including the propellants in the service module. See how that works?
So to restate the obvious: the Dragon has 3080 pounds of hypergolic propellant packed into that fairly small capsule. Apollo had 270 in that not much smaller than dragon capsule.

The SpaceX fans are making comments inferring I have no argument to make concerning the Dragon having a poorly designed escape system. They can roll out all the Phd’s and distracting examples of what is not an escape system and I will keep on restating my original view on this. The site operators do not like me constantly replying to these specious fan boy obfuscations but I really have no choice if my opinion is to remain clearly stated and not buried among pages of robo-comments.

Rodger Raubach

I believe the escape system was originally designed with retropropulsive landings of the dragon 2 capsule in mind. SpaceX may have decided that changing the capsule design at this late date would require too many changes be made. Unsymmetrical Dimethyl Hydrazine isn’t a particularly “bad actor,” and is relatively shock resistant compared to “normal” hydrazine. Roscosmos has designed the entire Proton rocket around the combination of UDMH and dinitrogen tetroxide. These are propellants with a good track record and performance capability. I personally would not be too panicked by riding in close proximity to these substances in the Dragon 2. No worse than several hundred other things that could kill the crew.

While human beings are strapped into the capsule of a fueled (or being fueled as has been proposed) launch vehicle up until Max Q and the subsequent first stage jettison there is the possibility of an “anomaly” resulting in the death of the crew.
By far the simplest and very best system ever designed to allow the crew to survive a launch anomaly is the solid rocket tractor escape tower. Loading up a small capsule with a couple thousand pounds of extremely toxic chemicals instead of using the tower is….the worst.

what was the hypergolic fuel & oxidizer combo used in the Titan 2 for Gemini?

Why are you asking me instead of Google?

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